The #1 Key to Marital Success!
I often start with a quick story about a couple I’ve counseled or worked with to help bring some color to the topic at hand, but today I want to look at an example that is fresh in my mind from a group of people we meet regularly with. Our church, like many, encourages our attendees to commit to a smaller group of people that meet consistently throughout the month. Small groups, life groups, affinity groups or whatever they might be called serve the purpose of making a larger church small so people can really get to know each other. My wife and I have been involved in some type of small group all twenty-five years of our marriage because I believe with everything in me that the level of community found in a small group might just be the most important key to marital success.
We were talking in our small group last week about the importance of having this type of community and what it provides for each one of us. The wife of one of the younger couples in the group who has been married approximately four years said, “If it wasn’t for this small group we would not still be married.” The husband from another couple echoed the same thing saying, “This group has kept us together when I would have given up.” A third couple also shared that they don’t believe their marriage would have survived if it were not for the support and encouragement from the group. In case you missed it, that is three couples from our small group that believe their marriage would have ended if they didn’t have the community they found in the small group.
I BELIEVE THE PRESENCE OR ABSENCE OF AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY IN YOUR LIFE HAS THE GREATEST INFLUENCE ON THE SUCCESS OR FAILURE OF YOUR MARRIAGE!
The problem is that many people grew up in homes where they were told that the family affairs stay inside the four walls of their home. It’s nobody else’s business what goes on here. It’s private! Many people I counsel with even describe themselves as “private” and express that talking with a counselor (who by law can’t share their business anywhere which seems pretty safe to me) is a bit scary. This whole privacy thing seems like a safer way to go on the surface, but for those who subscribe to this idea let me ask you a question. Is it safe to say that you continue to struggle with the same conflicts in your marriage that you have for years? If you look at your family of origin, is it safe to say that they still struggle many of the same issues they have for years? Ever seen a family that has struggled with the same habitual issues generation after generation? That’s because growth and change don’t occur in closed systems. You need outside wisdom and energy to produce growth and change in your life and relationships.
Think about it this way. Take the average couple who attends marriage counseling to resolve some issues and find relief for the relational pain they are experiencing. They see the counselor, get some insights which hopefully are helpful, and then receive some homework from the counselor they won’t see again for a week or two. They head home with some exercises and new behaviors they are supposed to implement in the marriage. Quick question: who is this couple counting on to put these new skills and exercises into practice? Answer: themselves. Yep. The same two people who have not been able to resolve the conflict for the last two years. The same two people who continue to act selfishly when hurt or disappointed. The same two people who are waiting for the other person to make the appropriate changes before they are willing to do anything. The same two people who have let themselves down more than any other people in their lives. This is why marriage counseling is often not successful.
We were created to need a close knit community of other individuals who care about us and care for us. This is how our personal, emotional, spiritual and emotional growth is supposed to take place. This is a biblical concept. Ephesians 4:14-16 says, “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly, as each part does its own work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” As you can see, the design of community is the come together so that everyone grows and becomes more mature. This can’t be done in isolation or in private.
Now that we’re all on the same page with respect to the importance of authentic community in our lives, let’s look at 5 things I believe community can provide.
If I had a dollar for every time an individual came into counseling by themselves seeking help for their marriage I would be retired. Here’s the scenario. The wife or husband comes in, sits down and begins to talk about some of the struggles they are facing in their marriage. I think you probably already know this but they are rarely there to talk about the things they are not doing well or struggling to do in their marriage and asking for help in how they can change and improve. They begin to talk about their frustrations with their spouse, how they don’t feel heard or valued and how their spouse won’t do anything to improve the marriage. This is somewhat obvious since they are seeking marriage counseling alone. After listening, talking with them about what they have tried to change and how they have attempted to influence their spouse I ask a simple question. Who in your spouse’s life has relational leverage they can use to move them towards change? Who can influence your spouse when you can’t? Who will they listen and submit to? The most common answer to that question is Nobody!
Once this question has been answered with “they don’t really have anyone that speaks into their life regularly,” the focus of the conversation shifts. We can now only talk about how they can set personal boundaries, what areas of the relationship they can work on and how they can always pray for their spouse. If you don’t want to find yourself in this position then you do not want to be your spouse’s only accountability partner. You need other people in your life and your spouse needs people in their life than can provide accountability, correction and influence at times of conflict in your marriage. I could stay on this topic for another hour but let me move on to the next category.
We all have seasons in our marriage where we need support and encouragement from others. Sometimes it’s because our spouse isn’t giving us the support we need and other times it’s because our need is at a level greater than our spouse can provide. There are times when we need a cheerleader to pump up our dreams, a confidant to hear our deepest hurts or fear, or an army to fight for our relationship when we don’t have the strength to take another step. We all need quality community to provide support and strength for our marriage. Notice I did say “quality community.” That would disqualify your two sorority sisters from college who are divorced and one is currently dating a married man or your dad who is on his third marriage. They probably don’t value the covenant of marriage the way you need your community to!!
A third key component of community is modeling. Your community has the ability to model for you what marriage should be, how husbands and wives should respond to one another in unconditional love and how to deal with and resolve conflict. Unfortunately nobody really knows what marriage is like until they’re married. No matter how much preparation is done, no matter how many couples you’ve watched or talked to, no matter how many books or videos you’ve watched, your marriage will be uniquely yours because you and your spouse are like no other two people in the world. You don’t wake up one day fully prepared to be a husband or wife so you will need other people around you to guide you in the process and journey. You don’t know what you don’t know. You will need insights and direction from your community to navigate the course.
For those of you that think you’ve got it together in your marriage, consider this. Most of the wisest and best businessmen I know have mentors they meet with regularly. These are not guys who have no clue how to do business. These are guys at the top of their fields. They realize that in order to grow they will need to have input from people who are further down the road than they are in business. They need the wisdom of people who have already been where they are heading. Even if you’ve been married twenty years and feel like you and your spouse have a great relationship there are likely some scenarios in the future where you will need input. How to navigate one of you losing a job. What it looks like to parent a wayward child as a team? Keys to preparing your marriage for being empty nesters. What do you do when one of you gets a health diagnosis no one was prepared for? Every couple needs a few other couples in their lives that can model and show the way when you are charting new territory in your relationship.
In almost 15 years of pastoral care and counseling I have yet to meet anyone who has not been wounded relationally at some point in their life. This varies person to person is significance and depth of pain, but is pretty much universal in everyone not raised by wolves. That’s an assumption since I’ve never actually met a person raised by wolves. This means that marriage is a union of two individuals who have been hurt by others in the past and who will most definitely hurt each other in the marriage. Sometimes a spouse’s past hurts and relational wounds are too much for their spouse to help heal. Sometimes they will need outside help and community to process and heal from their past wounds. Additionally, there will be hurts within the marriage that require outside help to deal with and heal from. Your community is the place where this should happen. Many marriages are failing to thrive because one or both of the spouses have not done the work needed to heal and become more whole individually. Individually healing and growth occur in the context of community so every marriage will need a community to grow into a healthy, vibrant and life giving relationship.
#5 CONFLICT RESOLUTION
This final category should be a given at this point in the discussion but in case you’ve been dozing in and out while speed reading the content, let’s present the final piece of evidence that community is a necessity in marriage. I’ll start with a question. If you’re married have you ever had a conflict with your spouse that you couldn’t seem to resolve? Maybe you just agreed to disagree and moved on down the road because it wasn’t that important after all. Maybe you both swept it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Maybe this is the same issue you’ve had an argument about so many times you can’t keep track anymore. Another question for you: What do you do when you can’t seem to resolve a conflict even with the best communication techniques you learned from the last counselor or marriage workshop?
Enough about you. Let me tell you what I do. I call my community. That’s right. When my wife and I have argued about an area of conflict three or four times it becomes clear to me that we are not going to reach a resolution by ourselves. If we could, we would have already done so, right? This is no longer an area of misunderstanding where if we have just one more conversation she or I will finally grasp the other’s perspective and come into agreement. I know exactly what she thinks and she knows exactly where I stand. We just disagree. I think my position is right and don’t want to budge and she feels the same about her side. When we arrive at this standstill we have a few couples that are further down the road in marriage than us whom we highly respect. We will choose one couple, call them, and share our opposing views on the subject matter. Once they have understanding of both sides we then ask them what they think about the issue. (it’s no secret that we both are hoping the prevailing wisdom will side with our point of view. That’s just a given because we both think we’re right) At this point we shut up and listen. We have already determined that when we get to this point we will submit to the wisdom and direction of the couple in this particular issue, so when they render their verdict we act on their decision and move on down the road. If you don’t have outside community to help resolve your unresolvable conflicts, you will continue to damage the relationship as you repeatedly fight about the same issue.
Community really is the key to a marriage that survives and thrives in all seasons of life. And it just may be the one thing your marriage is missing right now.